With 6:15 remaining between the New York Liberty and Atlanta Dream Friday night at Gateway Center Arena, Aari McDonald made a layup in transition off a Rhyne Howard steal to cap a 21-6 run and cut the Dream’s deficit to seven. It was not the ideal way for the Liberty to close out a game that if won would allow them to control their own destiny in their next and final regular-season game on Sunday against the same Dream. It forced them to sweat and play under pressure for the remainder of the game.
But the Liberty rose to the occasion. Crystal Dangerfield hesitated halfway through a drive to the basket and was able to fool Monique Billings enough to get by her before making a difficult reverse layup that increased New York’s lead to 10 with 4:57 to go. The Dream would again cut to seven, but with just 2:40 remaining. On Atlanta’s next two possessions, Sabrina Ionescu forced McDonald into a travel and Stefanie Dolson and Betnijah Laney contested a Howard three that missed. Then, over the final minute, the Dream missed some makeable shots and the score ended at 80-70 Liberty.
Ionescu continued her push to perhaps get some third-, fourth- or fifth-place MVP votes with 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Natasha Howard added 14 points, a season-high-tying 12 boards, three helpers and two steals and Dangerfield led the team with a season-high 18 points to go along with a season-high-tying six helpers. Laney, playing in her fourth game back from knee surgery, dropped a season-high 17 points and dished out three assists.
Dangerfield played a season-high 36:01 after playing a season-low 6:56 in the team’s previous game at the Dallas Wings, also a win. The 2020 Rookie of the Year who has been cut by the Minnesota Lynx, Indiana Fever and Liberty this year may have just saved the day when it comes to New York’s playoff chances.
“She did everything great for us,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “I spoke to her earlier today and just said, ‘Hey, didn’t play much in Dallas, it’s more about the game that’s coming up … This is a game we know we need you against Atlanta.’
“McDonald, she’s fast. But Crystal’s probably just as faster as her or maybe faster at times. I just told her to be aggressive. Because we knew they’d put pressure on Sab and we needed the other handler in there to be aggressive. And she made a lot of the pull-up shots that she loves. And that’s what we said, ‘Just play your game, be aggressive. Don’t be passive and looking for the others.’ And she was obviously fantastic for us. She allowed Sab to get the ball out of her hands and not have to fight pressure up the floor as well.”
Brondello was also very pleased with the way Laney performed. Laney had scored seven, four and 11 points in her first three games back, respectively, all off the bench before starting on Friday.
“She’s an All-Star,” Brondello said. “But you’re not gonna come back out, be an All-Star initially. So I just said just focus on playing really good defense, taking the open shots where they are. Not forcing it, letting the game come to you. … I thought she played a really good game for us.”
“It means a lot, to be out there, to be able to compete with my teammates, to be able to help in any way that I can,” Laney said. “It’s definitely been a journey. Having surgery, missing about, what, eight to 10 weeks. … To finally be here and be able to be around them, to play with them, it means a lot.
“I think the identity that we try and put out there is a sisterhood. That’s something that we talk about, having a sisterhood, having grit, staying confident and just trying to be together. And I think that that’s what we’ve shown the last few games. And I think that that’s exhibited in all of our play. Like we’re moving the ball, we’re sharing it, everybody’s being able to contribute. No matter how long you’re on the floor, everyone contributed tonight.”
As mentioned, Ionescu has turned into and All-WNBA First Team-caliber player this year and Howard was there in 2019. Howard was heavily invested in when the team traded the No. 1 pick for her prior to last season. She was pretty much supposed to be the Liberty’s best player in 2021, though Laney was certainly expected to be close to as good and emerged as an emotional leader who a took ton of big-time shots in 2021. All three of the Liberty’s big three have now earned the All-Star distinction. And the team’s depth is very good as well and they have no injuries entering Sunday’s regular-season finale.
The two teams on track to make the final two playoff spots couldn’t be headed in more opposite directions. The Phoenix Mercury had been down two stars and are recently down two more, with only one potentially returning for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Liberty were down one star (Laney) most of the season and saw an injury scare happen to another (Howard) right after the first came back, but are now at full strength with all three stars. The reverse of fortunes could make New York far more dangerous than Phoenix in the playoffs.
As Laney, put it, “It’s better late than never.
“We come out the next game the same way we came out the last two games and hopefully it’s ours to be there (in the playoffs),” Laney said. “And then this year we’re in a series. And so last year didn’t go as planned, but we were right there. And so I think that we come with that same kind of intensity that we came out last year but just with a little bit more, we’ll be in really good shape. And we’ll have another game to either continue to build or learn from.”